The end of customer service

March 18 2008 by Ellen Roseman

I happen to like scanning my own groceries, but I always feel like a traitor to the team. Will supermarkets eliminate human help as gas stations did? It seems like a dangerous trend to make customers do a cashier’s work and not pay them for it.

There’s a cover story in the latest Time magazine on 10 ideas that are changing the world. The end of customer service is on the list. “With self-serve technology, you’ll never have to see a clerk again,” the article says.

Companies love self-service for the money it saves. But why do consumers play along? Maybe the service we get is so minimal that we figure we might as well do it ourselves. Or maybe we’re in such a hurry that we can’t stand lining up.

I’d argue that the self-check-in kiosks at airports have actually improved our travel experience by cutting the waiting time. So have the self-serve screens at movie theatres.

Time cites a British experiment with machines that let customers not only buy merchandise on their own but also return it. There’s a chain of sushi restaurants in Malaysia with order screens linked to the kitchen — so much for waitresses. And a U.S. hospital will soon use check-in kiosks for emergency room visits. Simply touch the image of the human body where it hurts.

By adding all these new tasks to our daily routine, are we overstressing ourselves and reducing our quality of life? It’s an interesting debate. Just don’t expect to have it with a clerk.

This follows an earlier cover story in Businessweek magazine about consumer vigilantes. These frustrated folks use the Web and YouTube to get companies to respond to their anguished complaints.

Take Bob Garfield, a National Public Radio host, who set up the Comcast Must Die website. After repeated delays with his own cable TV service, Garfield suggested that customers post their account numbers on the blog. Dozens of customers followed his suggestion and many said Comcast called them back shortly after they posted their account numbers and rants. (This sounds like what I’m doing with Bloomex complaints here.)

There are also websites like The Consumerist that publish secret phone numbers and email addresses for executives that respond to high-profile customers and media personalities. Many companies are reluctant to talk about their executive customer service — or even to tell people that it exists. But The Consumerist does it here for Fedex and here for Microsoft.

If you’re at loggerheads with a big company, chances are I have a contact or can find one for you. So keep those complaints coming.


  1. brad

    Mar 19 2008

    What irks me the most is the message implicit in products that come with limited or no customer support: “Thanks for your money. Now you’re on your own.”

    The good news is that as this sort of behaviour becomes the norm, it creates a market niche for companies that focus on serving their customers. I’m not a huge fan of L.L. Bean’s products, but their customer service is incredible: proactive (calling me in Canada when an item has been backordered), effective (actually removing me from their printed catalogue list when I asked to be removed, something that many catalogue companies promise to do but in practice rarely seem to be able to manage), and prompt (questions submitted by email are answered by a real person in a few hours). That kind of behaviour on a company’s part generates customer loyalty. You want to buy things from companies like that because they have a human face and they treat you well. So you go back to them.

    While customer service may be on the wane generally, companies that do provide it will find an eager market in those of us who prefer to deal with people who care about their customers and whose sense of responsibility doesn’t end when their products leave the warehouse.

  2. John

    Mar 19 2008

    re THE END OF CUSTOMER SERVICE. Didn’t that end some time ago ?

  3. Jennifer

    Mar 19 2008

    I wanted to share my experience with a company’s executive customer service and tell your readers that this is probably the best way to get your issues resolved.

    I was receiving unsolicited telemarketing calls from one of my service providers and my numerous requests to be removed from the call list were ignored. I tried going through customer service but always received the response “we’re sorry for the inconvenience,” with no effort made to assist me.

    I finally had enough when, repeating my request for the fifth time in a month, the caller told me I could not speak to a Supervisor and hung up on me. I went to the company’s website, found the address for the President and mailed a very polite, but to-the-point letter informing them that I would be cancelling my account and submitting a complaint to CRTC.

    An executive customer service rep was on the phone with me the day they received the letter. I have not received a telemarketing call from this company since.

    You can be sure that I will be writing directly to a company’s President if I’m faced with a major issue that I can’t get resolved through regular customer service.

  4. Jamie

    Mar 20 2008

    I’ve had an ongoing issue with the local Blockbuster stores for 1.5 years. The problem is the extremely high rate of price tag errors/old sale promotion signs in their video game section, leaving a price scan overcharge more then half the time I’ve made a purchase. Staff have either outright refused to honour the posted price, resulting in my leaving the product on the counter, or having a mild to extensive argument to get them to honour their posted price.

    I let this go a number of times and finally pursued a complaint, resulting in several contacts with the district manager. He assured me on the phone and by email that their policy was to honour a price tag that was lower then the scanned price, that the stores already knew that, and he would make sure everyone knew that again. His last email to me Feb. 2007:

    “They have been informed that if they have ticketed the items incorrectly that they are still to honour the price. As previously mentioned, if they fail to do so please inform me and I will ensure this is addressed and honoured.”

    Recently I’ve tried shopping at Blockbuster again with that assurance in mind. Three times I’ve been overcharged and it’s been an issue to get the price corrected. The worst was this week, when two unique items scanned over double the price tag. I dealt with the manager on duty, who was positive Blockbuster policy is to charge the scanned price regardless of the price tag, was positive there is nothing wrong with doing that since they don’t subscribe to the scanning code, and had never heard they were to honour price tags. (I eventually got the prices adjusted after demanding to call the district manager right then.)

    I have just talked to the store manager at that location who has never heard from the district manager they are supposed to honour price tags, is positive it’s fine for them to charge a higher price and doesn’t see anything wrong with that. She said it could be careless part-time staff making a mistake or a customer changing price tags so they can’t honour them.

    If the district manager had told me that was the policy instead of what he did. I’d have never set foot in the store again. I have heard numerous reports from other cities that price errors at Blockbuster are equally as common, but they are honoured without problem, often with staff voluntarily doing so with no intervention from the customer.

    Unfortunately, Blockbuster Canada’s customer service email appears to be useless, often not responding at all. How could any store expect you to shop there when they frequently price products lower then they are willing to sell them at? Several times I was there on a return trip after noting the prices, and many of us want to compare prices between stores.

    If all stores operated like that, it would be impossible to know what you were expected to pay anywhere until going through the cash. It would certainly be an easy way to get an advantage over competitors to make it look like you were cheaper even when you were not.

    The Competition Act is vague, with listed offenses “selling for more then an advertised price unless immediately corrected” (what exactly does that mean?) and double ticketing offense “Selling for more than the lower of more then one price ticket” (Blockbuster has claimed they can charge the higher price tag even when it wasn’t even visible) . On their site, it does say one “should” get the lowest price if a price tag is lower than scanned.

    The local Blockbuster management is absolutely positive there is nothing wrong with charging more than displayed prices and there is no requirement for a lower tagged price to be honoured.

    I’d like to get someone at Blockbuster to clarify the very different policies their district manager (now on vacation for 2 weeks) vs local management are following, but there appears to be scant contact information available in Canada. It is astounding on such a basic issue that is a frequent problem here, the two can provide completely opposite responses. Surely as a chain, they must have a crystal clear policy?

  5. Joren

    Mar 21 2008

    Thanks for the heads up CW. What a shame they won’t stand behind their product.

    As I am in the market for a new computer, and was leaning towards Apple, I guess I’ll be making do with the relic I have, or going with another Windows based system.

    What a shame. I used to love Apple (still have 3 antiques laying about) and was one of their biggest supporters.

  6. brad

    Mar 22 2008

    I would still buy an Apple (in fact I just did two weeks ago, replacing my aging PowerBook G4 with a new MacBook Pro), but I agree that buying AppleCare is a smart idea. Every one of the eight or nine Macs I’ve owned since the 1980s has either come with, or eventually developed, significant hardware problems.

    Apple has never paid enough attention to quality control in its hardware; the software is another story and I’m 100% satisfied with that. I’ve never bought an extended warranty for anything in my life, having always felt it was worth taking the risk and saving the money, but in Apple’s case I will make an exception and buy AppleCare.

  7. Ian W.

    Mar 29 2008

    Actual customer call to HP Customer Service. Sound familiar?? Has the world gone mad? OY!